People might do that when they study, or read something for work, but it seems unlikely that in their leisure time they’re going to take notes on Gilmore Girls to quiz themselves later. “You could be seeing and hearing, but you might not be noticing and listening,” Sana says. “Which is, I think, most of the time what we do.”Still, not all memories that wander are lost. Some of them may just be lurking, inaccessible, until the right cue pops them back up—perhaps a pre-episode “Previously on Gilmore Girls” recap, or a conversation with a friend about a book you’ve both read. Memory is “all associations, essentially,” Sana says.That may explain why Paul and others remember the context in which they read a book without remembering its contents. Paul has kept a “book of books,” or “Bob,” since she was in high school—an analog form of externalized memory—in which she writes down every book she reads. “Bob offers immediate access to where I’ve been, psychologically and geographically, at any given moment in my life,” she explains in My Life With Bob, a book she wrote about her book of books. “Each entry conjures a memory that may have otherwise gotten lost or blurred with time.”In a piece for The New Yorker called “The Curse of Reading and Forgetting,” Ian Crouch writes, “reading has many facets, one of which might be the rather indescribable, and naturally fleeting, mix of thought and emotion and sensory manipulations that happen in the moment and then fade. How much of reading, then, is just a kind of narcissism—a marker of who you were and what you were thinking when you encountered a text?”To me, it doesn’t seem like narcissism to remember life’s seasons by the art that filled them—the spring of romance novels, the winter of true crime. But it’s true enough that if you consume culture in the hopes of building a mental library that can be referred to at any time, you’re likely to be disappointed.
Books, shows, movies, and songs aren’t files we upload to our brains—they’re part of the tapestry of life, woven in with everything else. From a distance, it may become harder to see a single thread clearly, but it’s still in there.
“It’d be really cool if memories were just clean—information comes in and now you have a memory for that fact,” Horvath says. “But in truth, all memories are everything.”